The Trauma that Never Ends

This post will seem a little different from the usual. I just came back from a trip to Guatemala with Inter Pares, a Canadian non-profit group that works with local development groups around the world to support their efforts at creating change. You can read the blog of our Solidarity Tour here and I think you will find a wealth of reflections from our group there if you take some time with it.

I couldn't help but be thinking of the effects of the Guatemalan internal conflict, the genocide, and the continuing struggles of the indigenous Mayan peoples to assert their agency in their own land on their brains -- both individual and collective (We Are Not Alone).

I'll be posting a series of posts about my reflections on the impact on and resilience of brains -- but I'll have more questions and observations from these people than answers for them. I'm intimidated by what they've been through and how they've managed to keep moving forward with courage and dignity.

So here is the first post -- in others I'll be looking at the brain~body connection, strategies for resilience, the role of connection~disconnection from our community-brains, the impact of story-telling on the brain and that community connection, and the power of transformation through Zooming-In~Zooming-Out.



As a psychologist listening to the stories of Guatemalan men and women who lived through the internal conflict — torture, homes burnt, family members killed and “disappeared”, rape, living homeless and starving in the mountains — I could hear and feel their distress about the trauma they still live with. They experience anxiety, sleep disruption, chronic pains. Yet these words sound so clinical and cold compared to their own Mayan word for their experience, which is far more eloquent: “susto” describes the feeling of being “disconnected from the heart”.


As a psychologist working in North America, I felt so helpless listening to these stories. Our trauma is of such a different variety. It results from a single horrific or life-threatening event or from an extended or repeated exposure to a chronically traumatizing situation that is now over. The brain structure and/or processing is changed by experiencing the trauma and isn’t adaptive for the return to “normality” after the event(s) have ended. We teach people how to return to a state of feeling safe and not to always be on “high alert” for danger or a repetition of their trauma. We use techniques to dis-associate the trauma from the automatic protective reactions of the brain~body, to reduce the sensitivity to cues that might have spelled danger during the traumatic events. We teach them ways to self-sooth and to feel safe again.


But what happens if there isn’t a “return to normality”?


During the visits of our group with the survivors of these internal conflicts, what struck me was that these people are still living with similar dangers. How do you even begin to “treat symptoms” that are still an adaptive response to traumatizing situations? How do you intervene mid-trauma?


The people who told us their stories of genocide, of years of sexual slavery, of the loss of whole families, of their land, their home and all their belongings, also described recent conflicts around mining projects, forced displacement from their land for mining and mono-culture plantations, extortion and threats from those accused of past crimes, rape and murder by security forces of the large international companies, the impunity and lack of response of the police and military. Over and over we heard that people are feeling like events of the internal conflict are happening all over again.


Imagine this: A woman — we will call her Maria -- is gang-raped by soldiers 30 years ago as a strategic method of intimidation and humiliation. None of them are arrested or prosecuted in any way. Some of them may even have lived in the same village after the “end” of the conflict. Recently, in response to protests about a mining project, a military barracks is established in her small village, this time to intimidate protestors. Maria has to walk past this barracks repeatedly every day in the course of her daily activities.


Let’s look factually at what this means. What is happening in her brain when she sees the barracks and the soldiers? The networks that were created through the previous trauma are triggered repeatedly — over and over again: soldiers — including their uniforms, insignia, bearing, and weapons; barracks; military as “control” of the local people, as a means of intimidation; memories of the rapes, the physical feelings and sensations that were reactions to the assaults; the shame and maybe even guilt for “allowing it”; the “high alert” in body, emotion, and thought that would automatically kick in to help her defend herself against a repetition of the event; the automatic body reactions to try to stay unobtrusive and not become a target of attention.


Do you see what this implies? Her trauma isn’t over, even if it happened 30 years ago. It’s being refreshed again, every single day. The “learning” - the strengthening of the brain networks — is becoming more and more entrenched.


And because the risk is real — the military, police, business security forces (which often hire ex-soldiers) still have impunity — how could I or any other psychologist even think of “treating” Maria’s fears? Sh does need to be on the alert, to be cautious, to be attentive to the details of what is happening around her, of avoiding risky situations.


Yet somehow all the “Maria’s” we met in our travels have carried on for 30 years. They have raised their families in spite of all the loss and hunger and fear. They have raised their voices as witnesses in the genocide trials even in the face of threats. They have joined with the younger generation to protest the injustice of loss of land to international business projects, pollution of their water, stripping of required nutrients from land that is then abandoned, good for nothing. As a psychologist, I felt helpless in offering any conventional knowledge I have. Yet I also was inspired to learn from them about how they have done this, how they have been so resilient in the face of ongoing trauma, what has helped them to build and maintain this resilience, what has helped their communities to heal and empower themselves.


Where I don’t have answers, I suspect they do. And maybe, just maybe, acknowledging and validating their wisdom is a step toward contributing in some way to their recovery. I want to share some of the answers and hints I thought I heard about their resilience — but that’s another post.